‘Whilst many people define the ‘English legal System’ by their perceptions of jury trials, it is, in fact, a rare feature of the system. ’ Discuss. It is perceived by many lay people that the majority of cases in the English legal system are dealt with by jury trials. Whilst the principle of being trialled by your peers is fundamental, it is misleading as only a small amount of cases are dealt with in this way. The Crown Court, that sees the majority of jury use, has a minority of cases resulting in trial and the amount being even lesser in the civil courts.
Although many proposals have been made to greatly diminish or abolish the use of jury trials, none have yet to be successful due to the concept of a democratic participatory society being of great constitutional significance to our country. It is a key principle that defendants have a ‘right’ to jury trial which is clearly why the general public will associate juries as playing a crucial role in the legal system. This is a rather old-fashioned concept created in the 13th century by the Magna Carta in which everyone is entitled to be trialled by the lawful judgement of their peers.
It could consequently be argued that this safeguard has become idealised in our system. The jury trial is seen as a ‘palladium’ of English justice and as Devlin famously proclaimed ‘the lamp that shows that freedom lives. ’ Many view them as a ‘little parliament’ infusing regular community values into the law and are evidently crucial to our liberal and democratic constitution. It must therefore be questioned why jury trials are reserved for a minority of cases. The crown court is the main court that sees the use of juries on a day to day basis.
However even in this court, juries are rarely used. For example in the quarterly of 2012 from October to December from the 33,137 cases that made it to the Crown court, only 8,946 of these were trials; this is less than a third of all cases. This shows that even in the court that sees the most of jury use, there is in fact a smaller need for them than many think. This is a result of many cases having an early guilty plea which has increased over the last few years as a result of plea bargaining.
Defendants may receive a reduction in sentencing resulting from an early guilty plea. This implemented law ensures cases are dealt with in a more timely and money effective way through the court system. Yet it could be seen here that the courts are more concerned with benefiting themselves, in terms of money and time, than carrying out justice fairly and encouraging jury trials for defendants. Although juries can also be used in civil cases too, their use is very limited and rare.
For example in both the High and County courts a jury may only be called for cases involving defamation, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and any alleged fraud. This is evidently a limited amount of cases from the civil law sector. Additionally in the Coroner’s court recent enforcements have allowed the Coroner to only call upon a jury where the victim dies whilst in custody or where he believes there is sufficient reason for jury trial Despite their seemingly rare use, there have been calls to diminish, if not remove, juries from our legal system.
For example the Mode of Trial Bill 2000, which although was not legalised, attempted to reduce the use of juries radically by changing many offences to be summary, meaning they would be dealt with in the Magistrates court without the use of jury trial. This would result in the alternate approach of trial by an unelected judge which seems foolish in the place of twelve reasonable and representative men. I believe such a severe suggestion of reducing or abolishing juries unjustly overlooks their fundamental constitutional significance as representing our democratic, participatory society.
The argument that they are of a high cost and unnecessary is clear to see; however it seems, as commented on by Cornish, that it would be ‘foolish to dismiss too hastily the obvious fact that a great many people simply believe in the jury system’ as they are representative of the ‘people. ’ It is unequivocal that in reality only a tiny fraction of cases are handled by jury trials. Whether this be the result of more summary trials or a guilty plea resulting from a bargain struck by a persuasive lawyer, many will pass through the courts without even considering or having the option for a jury trial.
Moreover with the future alleged proposals to see the use of juries cutback even further, this minority will only grow thinner. However in my opinion it would be unjust to abolish juries completely on the basis that, although they arguably play a minor role in the legal system, they provide a powerful iconic symbol giving reassurance to the general public of a participatory democracy and this essentially outweighs their practical significance.